An Interview with Dr. Julie Harris, Research Analyst

Dr. Julie Harris is a research analyst with expertise in quantitative research on improving college readiness and college-going rates. Julie has experience studying English learner students, law, education finance, and issues surrounding school choice. Julie joined the Education team in 2015, and she is currently working on a five-year Institute of Education Sciences grant to evaluate Florida’s College and Career Readiness Initiative.

We asked Julie what her most interesting finding has been. Read on to find out her answer!

Q: What made you want to become a researcher?

A: I took an economics course during my first year in college, and I fell in love with the field. While many people associate economics with finance, it is much more. Economics is a way of thinking, and it can be used to study incentives and human behavior. Economics provides both a theoretical framework and a statistical toolkit that can be used to study a wide range of subject areas, including education. While studying economics, I realized how much I enjoy using data to answer questions, and I realized I wanted to become a researcher. I came across a unique doctoral training opportunity at Michigan State University (MSU) that caused me to steer toward education research. MSU’s predoctoral fellowship program in the economics of education was unique in that it combined analytical methods from economics with institutional knowledge from the fields of education and sociology. I saw this as a terrific opportunity to receive a well-rounded education that could help me try to improve the education system through research—something I could feel really good about doing for the rest of my life.

Q: Through your work, what is the most interesting/unexpected/important finding you have discovered?

A: As part of my graduate work, I studied how English language learners (ELLs) engage in systems of school choice. There are a lot of barriers to participation in school choice for this typically disadvantaged student subgroup. Using data from a large urban district, I found that ELLs who attended a charter school were nine times more likely to turn down English language services than ELLs who attended a traditional public school. This finding suggests that charter schools may be nudging parents of ELLs to deny English language services. This is consistent with research findings that show charter schools targeting students who are less costly to educate (see, for example, United States Government Accountability Office, 2012). This means that ELLs may face a tradeoff between using nontraditional public school options and receiving English language learning assistance—a good example of how the education system can work differently for different students.

Q: What is your favorite part of research/least favorite part of research?

A: My favorite part is actually conducting the research. I like problem solving and am very methodical, so I enjoy designing the research, managing data, and writing code to conduct the analysis. My least favorite part is the actual writing. While it is obviously important, it just is not as fun as designing and implementing the research.

Q: If you were not a researcher, what would you do for a living?

A: This is a tough question. I feel like my training has set me up perfectly for the position I am in. Given the path I have taken, it is hard to think of something else I would rather do. If I had a do-over, I think I would enjoy being a trainer. Health and fitness were not important to me until later in my life, but I went through a major transformation toward a much healthier lifestyle, and have been happier because of it. I learned a lot in this process, and I think it would be extremely rewarding to help others work toward this.

Citation:

United States Government Accountability Office (2012). Charter schools: Additional federal attention needed to help protect access for students with disabilities. Retrieved from: http://www.gao.gov/assets/600/591435.pdf.

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